Friday, September 10, 2004
Last night, driving through southern Québec: empty two-lanes stretching off between corn fields; dark, quiet towns, all businesses closed. Now and then the glow from lights off in the distance spread illumination upward, reflecting off low cloud cover.
Mile after mile of narrow roads, mostly free of other vehicles, my car moving in and out of rain, the last of the hurricane's remnants. The air damp, mild. Now and then the intense odor of skunk, suddenly pungent and strong, then quickly fading.
Montreal radio stations playing hip-hop tunes in French. Other stations taking phone calls, the voices musical, soothing, easy on the ears.
The first time I've done distance driving at night in over a year. The first time I've crossed the border at night, only one other car around -- ahead of me, containing two 20-somethings, instructed to pull over in the spaces by the customs building (looking wary as they stepped out of the car). The customs agent fired questions at me, waved me on through.
Back in Vermont, adjusting to the country after a fast two days in the Hull/Gatineau/Ottawa area. It was good to be there, it's good to be home.
Ottawa, Wednesday evening -- twilight fireworks, a few hours in advance of Hurricane Francis:
Saturday, September 11, 2004
Tuesday morning: I left for Québec a little after 9, stopping at Montpelier on the way to knock off some errands on the way out of town. Liking the idea of spending a couple of days investigating the country next door.
Apart from passing through Ontario as part of a cross-country moving-to-Seattle drive after college, my only previous foray north of the border took place when my mother dragged me and a friend to Expo 67 for a few days, me too young to remember much of it now. We camped outside Montreal, shuttled back and forth between the campground and the Expo, never going into the city itself -- never having to deal with the local culture, the local language. I have no memory of anything other than English spoken, no memory of interactions with any Quebecois.* The province is our next-door neighbor here, we rarely hear anything about it apart from Montreal-tourism stuff. A mystery, one I looked forward to exploring.
I-89 unspooled quickly by. Autumn scenery, gray skies. The Canadian customs agent, a woman with a strong French accent, asked the usual questions, looked at my passport and drivers license, sent me on my way with a nice smile. On crossing over, the road immediately changed from a smooth, well-cared-for interstate to a local, heavily seamed, raggedly patched four-lane, flanked by modest houses, small businesses, trees giving way to corn fields as the road shrank to three lanes a few miles up the road. Farmland, punctuated by small towns, no English-language signage anywhere (except at currency-exchange joints).
The ride north went quickly, the route becoming wider, traffic increasing, until I found myself at Montreal's outskirts, on major highways packed with traffic, weaving in and out of construction, drivers jockeying wildly between lanes with self-destructive abandon, exit signs for other high-speed roads sprouting up with unnerving abundance. At which point I realized I hadn't studied my AAA material the way a smart traveler might, found myself trying to make sense of it all with one eye, keeping the other on the road, surrounding traffic, exit signs whizzing by.
I followed Rt. 10 downtown, crossing and flanking big waterways, where the highway emptied out onto a wide north-south boulevard, me following it ahead, a bit stunned to find myself suddenly in the middle of a major city amid lunchtime traffic and pedestrian crowds. Though with a strange, inexplicable conviction that I'd find my way out of it all, blithely amused with my sitch. An hour later -- after miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic on local streets, a rest stop for water/stretching, a fruitless search for a cash machine, a pause to bother someone for directions -- I'd found a high-speed road, left the city behind.
Montreal disappeared, giving way to great expanses of flat, scrubby land, farms and little else. Québec gave way to Ontario. The sky darkened. At Ottawa's outskirts, the clouds opened up, torrential rain fell, creating white-out conditions. Rush-hour traffic clogged the roads, sheets of water flying in all directions.
I passed through the city, across the Ottawa River back into Québec. By the time I pulled up in front of my destination -- the home of an online friend in Hull -- me and my hinder were numb from hours of four-wheeled joy.
*Not exactly true, that: one night, attempting to navigate the local highways back to our campsite, my mother found herself hopelessly lost, finally stopping to pull open a roadmap, try and figure out where in hell we were.** As she stared at the tangle of lines depicting the network of local highways, another car pulled over, a man emerged from it, asked in accented English if we needed help. My mother (the saucy wench) got out of our car, stood talking with him for a while. They eventually returned to their respective vehicles, he pulled back out onto the highway, we followed. Some time later he located the campground -- we pulled in, he waved au revoir and took off into the night.
**I now get her confusion, having driven the bizarre maze of highways around Montreal. I've lived in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, have never found myself unable to get from point A to point B -- until this last trip, trying to pass through Montreal to points west (likewise for the return trip).
This morning, late-season flowers and spiderwebs everywhere:
Monday, September 13, 2004
Yes, the home of an online friend. A human I've known for quite a while, with whom I've had many thoughtful email conversations. But one I hadn't yet met in 3-D.
She lives across the river from Ottawa in Hull/Gatineau, Quebec, where most folks speak French. On a tidy suburban street, many of the houses looking a bit streamlined in a 1950s way. I get out of the car, note her lawn (manicured), her shrubbery (trimmed and cared for), her house (spotless). Seemed like I might be dealing with a high-functioning grown-up, not the usual funky, countrified Vermont types I've grown accustomed to.
I stagger up the walk to the porch, feeling rumpled/spindled/folded after a day in the car, stretching muscles in dire need of attention after hours locked in driver's position. I ring the bell. No answer. Behind me, someone calls out in French. I look around, a 30ish guy's addressing me from the window of a van, a painter or carpenter, something like that. He calls out a question, it appears he's asking about the location of, er, something -- a street? A business? The location of the local Frank T.J. Mackey S&D seminar? Dunno. None of my seven or eight words of French will help out, I respond with a big shrug, hands out to my sides to add an "I have no freakin' idea" nuance to my communication. He mutters something, disappointed, and drives off.
I ring the bell again. No answer. I look around, scoping out the neat, grown-up environs. Inside, footsteps become audible, hurrying my way. The door swings open, revealing L., a diminutive blonde in an outfit far nicer, far more presentable than my current post-travel duds -- an ankle-length dress, slit up the sides. Artfully applied make-up. Intelligence shining from eyes looking a bit wild, their owner having come from a phone call in which the other party tenaciously refused to disengage. I enter, we babble at each other, the visit commences.
This was not, by the way, a romantic visit. L. already had a going romance, of two or three years' duration. So when the time came to bring my bags in from the car and find out where I'd be sleeping, I learned that the house had no guestroom, just her one bedroom. I immediately assumed I'd be sleeping on a sofa -- L. produced a negative response to that (and indeed, the living room sofa -- the place's one and only sofa -- looked too clean, too showy, not the kind of comfy for a sleepover). I asked about a place on the floor, L. wouldn't hear of it. I'd be sleeping in her room, she said (my teeny brain going Huh?). She, she went on, would be going to sleep at a friend's place.
My jaw dropped, I refused to put her out of her house. She refused to do anything else. She indicated it was normal, even traditional in her part of the world that the host gave the guest the alpha bed. (Got me remembering the single time I'd done that for a guest, when a woman I knew had nowhere to stay for a night and I offered an evening's shelter. I had a sofabed to resort to, though -- loaning out the flat's only real mattress was no hardship.)
When it seemed like me going to a hotel might genuinely offend or hurt feelings, I gave in, figuring if the situation felt truly uncomfortable, I'd see about relocating to a hotel the following day.
We sat at her small dining table and talked, the time slipped by. She made an excellent meal, we ate and continued talkig. Had dessert, talked some more. Time slipped by. At some point, I began to fade, she said good-night and left. I found myself alone in the house, feeling strangely... something. Adrift, displaced. Having displaced the usual occupant.
Went to bed. (Her bed.) Slept. Woke up in the wee hours, felt I wouldn't be getting back to sleep right away. Turned on the light, found myself in someone else's bedroom. Read for a bit, turned off the light. Slept.
Got up at a reasonable hour, showered, etc. She came home, had been awake for a while but stayed away, not wanting to roust me. Seemed surprised to find me up and lurching slowly toward wakefulness.
We sat at her small dining table, talked over good coffee and croissants. Time slipped by. Conversation came easily with L., a smart, interesting, extremely capable person who's lived an interesting life.
Blah blah blah. Went out, did touristy stuff. Made a trip to Gatineau Park, did plenty of walking. Had lunch. Found a parking space near the river, walked across the Portage Bridge, stopped in at the National Gallery, discovered a heap of excellent paintings by the Group of Seven, a bunch of arty types I'd never heard of before. Went up to the Parliament buildings -- closed by that time of day, though L. tried gamely to wangle entry. Walked to the marketplace, found a spot for coffee and talk. Walked more. Way more. Tried to find an Indian restaurant, got lousy directions, leading to much more walking, during which we witnessed one of the more spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. (See entry of 9/10.) Found the Indian joint, it featured a major buffet of very decent chow. Made me extremely happy.
During all of this, we had language stuff going on -- comparing words in French and Spanish, and L. working on her English, which is pretty good to begin with. Whatever driving needed to be done, I did, in-car time producing certain moments of major hilarity -- examples: (a) L. learning the expression 'stick shift,' a word combo whose vague sexual imagery had her nearly speechless with laughter; (b) me enjoying French signage. Signage example: the name of a local video store, Video Super Choix ('Choix' pronounced 'shwah,' meaning 'choice'). Say it out loud, overdo the French accent on 'Super Choix. Then repeat it. Then repeat it again. Sure fire entertainment, at least to the easily amused of my pitiful calibre.
National Gallery, Ottawa (yes, they actually have an exhibit of clown paintings currently on view):
Friday, September 17, 2004
That night: me, alone again in the house. Turned on the TV, cruised through the strange combination of American and Canadian programming, including a hefty number of French-language channels, some featuring fairly goofy sexually-themed fare. Fell asleep late, woke up early, wind blowing outside, torrential rain beating on the house -- the remains of Hurricane Frank, stopping by to say hello. Never got back to sleep.
L. had invited me to check email whenever I felt the urge, I did so during those wee, sleepless hours. Discovered a note from an agent asking me to send the first three chapters of my novel for his perusal (shameless self-promotion: links to excerpts from the novel can be found at the bottom of this journal's MORE FOCUSED BLATHERINGS section). Got me feeling like I needed to return home and attend to work like that, began thinking of starting back that evening, post-rush-hour -- go partway, hit a motel for the night, finish up the drive the next morning, Friday.
L. eventually showed, we made surprisingly coherent morning conversation over coffee/croissants. The conditions outside being tourist-hostile, I didn't feel terribly inclined to venture out. Indoors, however, I had no space of my own to retreat to, began feeling at loose ends, a bit claustrophic, despite the continuing abundance of good conversation. We eventually bit the bullet, pulled on foul-weather gear, headed out into the slop.
Blah blah blah.
Hit the road that evening, making great time. Found myself ready to do the entire slog instead of stopping at a motel. Zipped right along, going in and out of rain. Until Montreal, where road construction fouled up traffic and prevented me from making the highway connection I needed, sending me off into poorly-lit hinterlands for an extended tour of, er, suburb-like places I didn't especially want to see.
But it passed. I resorted to country two-lanes, passing through small southern Quebec towns -- quiet, mostly dark. Crossed the border around 11 p.m. And as much as I enjoyed being away, it felt so sweet to come back to the green mountains.
This autumn has turned out to be a long, drawn-out affair, the leaves turning slowly after an early start at the beginning of August, the earliest I've ever seen. Since the summer's excessively rainy weather transformed about three weeks back -- becoming drier, kinder, more user-friendly -- the gathering of color has slowed right down, and most of it's been muted. Pretty, but quiet.
The cold season's coming, though -- the second half of September has weaseled its way in, October is around the corner. In preparation for which three tons of coal arrived here yesterday and now resides in the garage -- a small, dark mountain of fossil fuel, ready to go into the stove a bucket at a time to keep casa runswithscissors liveable when the days get short and cold winds rattle the windows.
And somehow it's become Friday again. Another weekend looms.
May you enjoy yours, whatever it brings.